The World War II Genocide of the Romani
John J. Dunphy
(Published under the headline “Itinerant Romani once camped at Alton’s Rock Springs Park in the 2/22/20 edition of The Telegraph of Alton, IL)
For most area residents, Rock Springs Park in Alton is best known as the site of a dazzling display of Christmas lights. According to articles in the Sept. 2 and Sept. 5, 1882 editions of the Alton Daily Telegraph, however, the area we now know as Rock Springs Park was a campground for an itinerant group of Romani (or Roma), the people many of us grew up calling gypsies. These itinerants made the news when one of them died in our city.
John Cooper, a 25-year-old husband and father of two children, expired on Sept. 1, 1882. The article noted that ‘in accordance with the custom of that strange race of people,” the other Romani with whom he had been traveling burned Cooper’s clothing, saddle, bridle, tent and other articles. An article titled “Gypsy Funeral Customs,” which was published in the Autumn 1969 issue of Folklore, confirmed that destroying the possessions of the dead is indeed a Romani custom. The article described the relatives of an 87-year-old deceased Romani woman in Ireland smashing all her belongings — including Waterford glasses and silver ornaments — and then burning her “large and well-furnished modern trailer-caravan.”
The Telegraph reported that these Rock Springs Romani “would also have burned a valuable wagon” that Cooper owned “had it not been been necessary to use it in their removal South, which will soon take place.” The article stated that the “principal business of these Gypsies” is horse trading and fortune telling.
The Romani originated in the Punjab region of India and migrated to Europe between the eighth and tenth centuries. Romani families began immigrating to the United States in the late-nineteenth century. It was their good fortune to escape the genocide that was to come.
Many Europeans disliked and mistrusted the Romani “because Europe was not their homeland,” according to Laszlo Teleki in his paper “The Fate of the Roma During the Holocaust: The Untold Story” for the Holocaust and United Nations Outreach Program. Nazi Germany regarded the Romani –much like Jews — as “a threat to the concept of ‘Aryan racial purity.’ “
The Nuremberg Laws, passed on Sept. 15, 1935 forbade marriage between Germans and Jews in addition to stripping Jews of their citizenship. Later that year, the Nazis extended the Nuremberg Laws to include the Romani. When World War II began in 1939, about a million Romani lived in Europe. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, about a quarter-million Romani were murdered by Germany and its allies.
The Einsatzgruppen killed Romani as well as Jews in the German-occupied territories of the Soviet Union. Romani men, women and children were also sent to concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they perished. Militias murdered Romani in the Nazi puppet state of Slovakia. Romania, which had aligned itself with Nazi Germany, deported its Romani to Nazi-occupied Ukraine, where they died of disease and starvation. Croatia, Germany’s most bloodthirsty European ally, established a series of concentration camps within its borders. Approximately 100,000 Jews, Serbs and Romani were murdered before the war ended in 1945.
The persecution of the Romani didn’t conclude with the destruction of Nazi Germany, however. The nation once known as West Germany “determined that all measures taken against the Roma before 1943 were legitimate official measures against persons committing criminal acts, not the result of policy driven by racial prejudice,” according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “This decision effectively closed the door to restitution for thousands of Roma victims, who has been incarcerated, forcibly sterilized and deported out of Germany for no specific crime.”
West Germany in 1979 finally conceded that the persecution of the Romani had been racially motivated and victims were eligible for compensation for their suffering and loss. By that time, however, many of those victims had died.
Our nation was a sanctuary for the Romani. May it always be a sanctuary for the persecuted.
John J. Dunphy is the author of Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials: The Investigations of the U.S. Army 7708 War Crimes Group, 1945–1947)